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Students on expedition to Borneo

Every two years, students from Leiden University go into the Malaysian rainforests of Borneo. There they speak with Malaysian people to discover the use of plants or learn a local fishing technique. Improvising in the jungle leads to fruitful, creative, and important research.

On Saturday the 17th of February, fifteen students from Leiden University and other universities went to a research station in the middle of the tropical rainforest of Borneo. During the course Tropical Biodiversity and Field Methods they join various researchers that are stationed in the research centre. That is how they observed how researchers catch 4-meter-long pythons or they looked for monkey poo for DNA-research into parasites.

One of the researchers there is Leiden Master student Sophie van der Hart. She is doing her master internship at the field centre and participated in the course two years ago. ‘The course was an unforgettable adventure for me. The tropical rainforest of Borneo is one of the last remaining pristine nature on earth and a hotspot for biodiversity. The course gives a sneak peak in the world of nature protection and all the ups and downs that you can encounter.’


After a week of participating, they could start their own project. That is how student Serena Rivero learned a local fishing technique to discover which fishes are present where in the river. ‘Because of my interest in marine biology I was looking into the water during the first week, wondering what swims in there.’


Students Corné van der Linden and Isabela Pombo Geertsma compared the plants in different habitats, like oil palm plantations and tropical rainforest. Aside of this they studied how the Malaysian field assistants use the plants, in other words the ethnobotanical aspect. ‘There is a plant of which the leaves carry small fruits. The local inhabitants call this dukung anak, Malaysian for carrying a baby. Women that want to become pregnant will eat this plant to boost their fertility,’ explains Pombo Geertsma.


Course leader and biologist Jeremy Miller is proud of what the students accomplished with the limited amount of resources. Because there is little space for materials, students must improvise, be creative and get the job done with the materials they have at their disposal.’ For Rivero learning the local fishing technique was the only way to catch the fish. ‘It was much more difficult than it looks. I had to practice a lot on the land. Also, it was exhausting. Because of this I have a lot of respect for the fishers,’ she amplifies.

Accept for the students from Leiden also two Malaysian students participated. Natasha Zulaikha, environmental studies student at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, experienced the collaboration with the students from Leiden as valuable. ‘It was a good mix of ideas and insights and the other students were open and nice to work with.’

Nature policy

Accept for learning to cope with the challenging circumstances of the jungle, there is another important reason the course takes place. ‘The students learn to ask questions about tropical rainforest, their protection and the conflict between humans and nature,’ explains Miller. This is important because in 40 years’ time 80 percent of the rainforest has been replaced by oil palm and timber plantations. Research into the effect of this kind of changes on the habitats of animals and plants is essential for developing effective nature policies.

In 2020 the course will take place again in Borneo. Check the course guide of Leiden University and the website of Naturalis for updates and more information.

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